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Cardinal rules of writing

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BETWEEN THE LINES..Phillip Chidavaenzi

WHEN the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe (NACZ) announced the list of nominees for the 17th National Arts Merit Awards (Nama) which was later held on February 17, 2018 at the Reps Theatre in Harare, I was happy that two of the nominees were my good friends.

After reading the statement by the independent adjudicators then, which accompanied the list, something troubled me. Although the adjudicators applauded the geographic spread of entries across all genres as well as quality of artworks despite limited resources, there are areas in which they noted some serious shortcomings in the editing, proofreading and general packaging of the books in the literary categories.

One of the key observations was that a high number of literary works were self-publications, which they said had numerous errors and unforgiveable grammatical and technical mistakes, thus affecting ultimate products as well as exposing glaring editing shortcomings.

This is a serious indictment on the work of authors, particularly given that most local authors have now resorted to self-publishing. I think one thing that is missing in the self-publishing matrix is the rigorous gate-keeping process that was critical in established and traditional publishing houses in Zimbabwe.

I remember when I first submitted a novel manuscript to Mambo Press, perhaps some 12 or so years ago, the verdict was not exciting. Indeed, the script was littered with a lot of mistakes. But I am sure if self-publishing had invaded this country back then as it has now, I would have published the book in that form. And it would have been a disaster!

I have had the privilege to edit many books. If someone comes to me with a book for editing and they already have a launch date, I kindly ask them to find another editor because, if there is one thing that a script editor worth their salt hates, it is being rushed through the editing process.

Under normal, professional circumstances, I believe an editor should take longer time in editing than the author took writing the book.

One thing that many upcoming writers fail to realise is that editing and proof-reading a book are two different processes. The editor will deal with things such as the flow of the story, the characterisation and handling of themes. The proof-reader, on the other hand, will read the script and make any necessary corrections particularly to do with grammar, spellings, syntax and so on.

It is imperative for an author to proof-read their own work several times before submitting it for editing, as this will make the editing process faster and more efficient. Sometimes it is important to put the script away in between drafts so that you return to it with a fresh eye. I was amazed many years ago, reading about the renowned Kenyan writer and global icon Ngugi wa Thiong’o and how it took him six years to write the classic, Petals of Blood. But I have seen that many upcoming authors want to write a book and have it published within a few months. That does not work.

While the first draft of a book can be written in a short time, the revising, editing and proof-reading stages naturally have to take longer to ensure clinical precision. The late veteran author Charles Mungoshi is on record saying he penned his Shona classic, Makunun’unu Maodzamoyo, through the night in one sitting. Of course, there can be an outpouring of inspiration for an author. But editing is a clinical process that would obviously take longer to ensure that all the wrinkles in the script are ironed out.

Take the time to read books in the same genre as your script, study how they are crafted, and try to match them especially in terms of technical proficiency. As an upcoming author, you will never be judged by different standards from those prescribed to established and experienced authors. This means the investment of time into one’s writing is important.

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